Consider the other top esports of our time: Dota 2, League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and so on. All of these games meet a key esports criteria that our beloved Hearthstone currently fails. Obviously, these games have enjoyed many more years worth of balancing and fan base cultivation, but, more importantly, these popular games also place their emphasis on intense and intimate teamwork, asking players from around the world to develop perfect coordination and communication skills.
In other words, these games require a level of execution that Hearthstone, with its one-on-one format, simply lacks. Thus far, Hearthstone’s mainstream tournaments, such as the Hearthstone World Championship and the Pinnacle, have done little to acknowledge professional Hearthstone teams as more than sets of practice partners. Teammates enter separately, play separately, and win separately. This system has felt desperate since the first pro teams formed, forcing curious spectators to question the purpose of professional Hearthstone teams beyond shared sponsorship deals.
The recent Archon Team League Championship, on the other hand, moved to capitalize on this lost potential. An arduous, months-long trial of 8 teams, ATLC asked these teams of 3 to make their wins through collaborative deck building, match-up consideration and thorough preparation. In this way, ATLC tested players more thoroughly than any tournament has to date. Teammates would need to prove themselves not only in their individual matches, but in their ability to fill a role in their teams. If one player gets pegged as having the strongest Patron Warrior performance, then another must be prepared to counter a Patron loss with a solid Control Priest.
Plus, by fully introducing teamwork into Hearthstone’s esports environment, no longer could a single player’s 1st place finish be lazily chocked-up to lucky draws and RNG. Instead, player performance enters into a wider average, and one player’s good fortune could easily be countered by their teammate’s bad draws in the following game. This effectively smooths out the often problematic issue of RNG’s influence on competitive Hearthstone matches by increasing the number of player-controlled variables.
ATLC’s team-based format also freed players to experiment with their decks and bring some surprises to the established metagame. We saw Enhanc-o Mechano in Eloise’s Zoo deck, the return of Ragnaros to Warlock and Druid decks, Blingtron 3000 in Team Celestial’s Druid, and even an old-school priest deck from team Value Town, featuring a Wild Pyromancer and two Sen’jin Sheildmastas. These sort of high-risk, high-reward card choices would rarely make the cut in a standard, one-on-one tournament, where a player can only rely on themselves and their safe deck compositions. If a gambit such as Blingtron or Enhance-o Mechano fails for one teammate, another can play recovery while those tech choices await a better match-up. This makes for a more challenging experience for the players, as well as a more exciting tournament for spectators.
In the end, we saw two teams approach the grand finals of ATLC: Cloud 9 and Nihilum, both with established histories and relationships. It’s worth noting that teams established for the sake of the tournament, such as Value Town and ForsenBoys, failed to make it as far, demonstrating the impact that teamwork can have on a game seemingly determined by one-on-one match-ups. In fact, Nihilum’s harrowing climb to victory on ATLC’s final day, rising from the bottom-seeded team to 1st place, made for an esports story as exciting and memorable as any CS:GO or LoL championship.
Replace one player in Team Nihilum’s line-up, such as Lifecoach for Forsen, and and that team would have stood far less of a chance at earning their championship title. The same decks may apply, with the same RNG mechanics, but the long-standing relationship between Thijs, Lifecoach and RDU earned them the first-place finish, and proved, without a doubt, that Hearthstone can function successfully as a team-based esport.
Hearthstone will always make an excellent and exciting one-versus-one game. And, of course, the level of teamwork required by ATLC couldn’t match-up to the insane coordination needed for successful CS:GO or LoL teams. Yet ATLC still provided players an opportunity to prove themselves in a far more testing environment, both on the grounds of individual play and the execution of an entire team. Ultimately, the numbers don’t lie: the ATLC grand finals saw a massive number of viewers, upwards of 100,000 individuals watching, rooting, and spamming Amaz’s Twitch chat. With such mass approval, perhaps it’s time to consider moving Hearthstone closer to more established esports, and make team-play a core part of the Hearthstone tournament scene.